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Review: ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’

The Unexpected Trilogy

Guest film critic Nathan John took a visit to Middle Earth for Peter Jackson's long-awaited prequel to his "Lord of the Rings Trilogy," "The Hobbit," the first of a new trilogy, opens at 12:01am (opening everywhere December 14).

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Disclaimer: I am not a huge Tolkien fan, nor have I read any of his books in their entirety. But I am a fan of director Peter Jackson's film adaptations thus far.

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is a fun film, meeting the franchise's standard that guides us through the detailed and magnificent history of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth. And it's starting to feel a lot like Star Wars. I don't think Disney will be handling Tolkien's imaginary realm anytime soon, but the already beloved epic is ballooning into a super-epicly epic with this prequel trilogy. These nine extra hours on the silver screen provide so much time and space that we, the audience (particularly those who have not read the books), can really appreciate the scale, complexity, and wonder of J.R.R.'s work.

J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, as seen in Peter Jackson's film adaptations.

Everything feels quite familiar in "The Hobbit" -- the Shire, Rivendell, Gandalf's baggy eyes, the different species (orcs, elves, hobbits, etc.), and the detail throughout -- all as I remember from the original films released a decade ago (quite unlike the Star Wars series in that way).

I did not expect the spectacular film quality, though. For the first time, I experienced Edwards Theater's RPX (Regal Premium Experience) digital 3D theater. It's wonderful. And along with the film's 48 fps (frames per second) shooting rate, the entire experience was often truly awing. Rock grooves, individual shrubs, streams of water -- they all pop and are wonderfully detailed.

Jackson often uses vast landscape-sweeping shots paired with Howard Shore's (original "Lord of the Rings" composer) adventurous tunes to show transitions or "set the stage." In the RPX theater, at 48 fps, these shots are more beautiful and enveloping than ever.

Magnificent film quality on an immense screen can be a double-edged sword though. Jackson relies on CGI characters (among other computer-created elements) to tell the story. In "The Hobbit" there are extremely clear and realistic surroundings with an evidently unrealistic orc leader in the middle of a lot of scenes. This can temporarily suspend the awe of a perfectly clear, beautiful shot. This is why I prefer the use of "real" orcs (pictured below). (You can find more information on orcs than you ever thought necessary here.)

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A band of orcs from "The Hobbit" trilogy

Viewing quality aside, everything is in accordance with Jackson's standard set in the original trilogy. So, if you like "Lord of the Rings," you'll like "The Hobbit"

Arguably the best acting, as expected, is from Gollum (Andy Serkis reprises his infamous role). One of the most memorable scenes of the film is a stand-out scene in the book as well -- Gollum's game of riddles with Bilbo. This scene also serves as a platform for Gollum to battle himself, which is always fun to watch. It's more of the same from Serkis, and it's great.

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Andy Serkis as the ever-creepy and exciting Gollum in 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins) and Ian McKellan (Gandalf) are consistently awesome in their roles as well. They provide steady support for the lengthy picture that gets a bit stale with dopey dwarf humor. Freeman is perfectly hobbit-like in his own ways. He's a small (in stature and demeanor), unassuming man with a curious look in his eyes. He can pull out a solid monologue when needed, and be believable and relatable -- qualities that aren't as prominent in Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins (essentially the same character from the original trilogy).

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Martin Freeman as the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

The biggest issue I hold with the film is the birds (eagles for the nit-pickers). If you've seen "The Two Towers" or "Return of the King" you know these birds. They're far too convenient. If our characters could figure out a schedule for using them, rather than being saved from certain death at a moment's notice, they could get a lot done really fast. (Semi-spoiler alert here) At the film's end, the eagles drop off our main characters at a peak which looks on to their final destination, The Lonely Mountain. But really, they could fly an extra 20 minutes and drop Gandalf and his hoard of mini-humans at their final destination. These awesome birds already serve as emergency service aids to Gandalf, couldn't they forego all this nonsense and finish more missions efficiently? Obviously the answer is no, we would miss out on grand adventures, but the convenience of these birds is getting ridiculous by the fourth film.

Rant over -- I'm ready for the next movie! I'm ready to delve back into the extravagant and magical world Jackson brings to life on the screen. Namely, I'm excited to see Benedict Cumberbatch as a sorcerer known as "The Necromancer."

Some Fun Hobbitery:

Here is a list of the main characters with their pictures in "The Hobbit"

Check out "Furious Fanboys'" article on "5 Reasons Why The Hobbit Needs Three Movie." Do you, as a the audience, appreciate the six extra hours of film Jackson is adding to accommodate for backstory and The Appendices? Or would a single film adaptation be better suited for this single volume novel?

Also, here's Gandalf playing bagpipes on a unicycle.

Companion Viewing:

"Lord of the Rings" (obviously):

"Fellowship of the Ring" (2001), "The Two Towers" (2002), "Return of the King" (2003)

These three films (produced and shot together as one movie) share 30 Academy Award nominations and 17 wins.

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